COMMENTARY
 
Swat: Pakistan’s Valley of Death
Weekly Pulse
November 2-8, 2007
Swat, the beautiful valley cut across by crystal clear waters of a river flowing downward from the peaks of Himalayas, has, for all practical purposes, emerged as Pakistan’s second front after Waizirstan in the war against extremism and terrorism. On the one side of this river are Pakistan’s security forces entrenched in their positions; on the other, it’s the Imam Dheri stronghold of the extremist forces loyal to Mualana Fazalullah, the 32-year old son-in-law of Sufi Muhammad, the jailed leader of Tehrik-e-Nifaz-e-Shariat-e-Muhammadi (TNSM).

Gone are the times when tourists from all across the country and the world would visit the Valley of Swat and travel up to serene mountain resorts like Kalam along Swat river known for its delicious trout fish. The same river now constitutes the dividing frontier between the forces of state and the forces of extremism.

The temporary ceasefire between the security forces and extremists loyal to Fazalullah may have brought some respite in fighting in the valley. However, there are no signs that any peace effort, including the one started by the All Parties Conference (APC) this week, will prevent renewal of fighting between the security forces and extremists.

The three-day long fighting alone claimed the lives of 32 security personnel, as the bodies of 12 of these personnel who were earlier reported missing were recovered by the security forces on Tuesday. According to the ISPR, some 60 extremists were also killed in the three days of security operation, even though Maulana Sirajuddin, the spokesmen of Fazalulla, has claimed the physical loss on their side is much less.

Battle Lines Drawn

Even after the ceasefire by the extremists, the battle lines seem to be clearly between the two contenders, with each side apparently using the temporary respite in violence to consolidate its respective position. However, the temporary truce, reportedly resulting from negotiations between the extremist leadership and caretaker government minister Mohammad Ali Shah Bacha Lala, did allow thousands of women, children and elderly men to flee the embattled areas such as Matta, Kabal, Khwaza Khela, Manga Lowar and especially Imam Dehri.

Swat was one of over 550 princely states in the Indian subcontinent. Its last pre-partition prince, known as the Waliay Swat, was the father of Miangul Aurangzeb, the former MNA and Governor of Balochistan. The area is known for having a very peaceful and welcoming population. So much so that even after the first uprising by TNSM in the mid of 90’s, local and foreign tourists never felt any threat to their life, and Swat all these years continued to be the second most popular tourist destination after Murree. Which factors then made it a valley of death, as it has currently become, with a spate of suicide and roadside bombings since the mid of July and the consequent battle between the extremists loyal to Fazalullah and the country’s security forces, operating in the region, as claimed by the Federal government, upon the request of the provincial government of North West Frontier Province?

This is the key question, which is not difficult to answer if an assessment is made of a succession of events in the recent past. During my career as a working journalist, I was myself in the midst of the first TNSM uprising in November 1995, which was forcibly crushed with the help of a security operation by the Frontier Constabulary (FC).

At that time, as Taliban were capturing one Afghan province after another, it was having a spillover impact on Pakistani tribal regions bordering Afghanistan. Sufi Muhammad’s demand for the enforcement of Sharia in Malakand Division was a direct consequence of the rise of Taliban in Afghanistan. Before the TNSM militants overtook Saidu Sharif airport and other government buildings in and around Mingora, they also allegedly killed a PPP MPA Badiuzzaman from Malakand, when the NWFP government was headed by Aftab Sherpao.

First TNSM Uprising

I remember that after the FC operation, which had claimed around 13 lives of TNSM militants, Sufi Muhammad was paraded in all of the above-mentioned hotbeds of current violence in an armoured vehicle to calm down TNSM militants. As a follow-up to the FC operation, the NWFP government agreed to enforce Sharia order in Malakand Division. TNSM’s main demand, the replacement of magistrate with a Qazi and civil courts with Sharia courts, was partially met. There were troubles in the government-TNSM agreement after some months, which led to the renewal of TNSM activity, but the radical religious organization could not replicate its first uprising.

I also remember a couple of conclusions that I had drawn from my reporting from the embattled Malakand Division during the 1995 TNSM uprising. First, the traditionally peaceful people of Swat did not support the militant strategy of TNSM. Sufi Muhammad was himself from Dir and his militants were also commonly believed by the Swatis to have descended from the mountains of Dir and Baujaur agencies. “Just look at them! Do you think they physically resemble us?” I would hear this remark quite often while talking to people in Mingora, the central town of Swat. The black turban-clad, physically stronger and taller TNSM militants would look quite different from relatively thinner and shorter Swatis.

The second conclusive argument that I made after covering the TNSM uprising was that there were several criminal cases registered against TNSM top brass in the civil courts, and the reason why TNSM was demanding the establishment of Qazi courts was to help scores of people loyal to its cause to escape from conviction in the civil court cases. I don’t know how far this motivation behind Sufi Muhammad’s Sharia movement was true, but this is what I was told then by the residents of Swat valley.

A Great Misadventure

To cut a long story short, the TNSM went into background after the 1995 uprising, and its name was reheard only after the 2001 war against Taliban, as Sufi Muhammad incited the tribal population against the US-led forces in Afghanistan and reportedly took 10,000 tribal people inside Afghanistan to contribute to the Taliban fight against the US Special Forces and the Tajik and Uzbek forces of the Northern Alliance in northern Afghanistan. Nearly 3,000 of the tribal people were killed, and the rest were either rescued by Pakistan or were captured and imprisoned inside Afghanistan.

The government of Pakistan had then blamed Sufi Muhammad for the great misadventure in the name of jihad and he was consequently put in jail. Fazalullah had reportedly accompanied TNSM fidayeen, but managed to return and, in the absence of Sufi Muhammad, started to lead the radical organization from his headquarter in Imam Dheri. However, until the security operation against Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa in July, he or thousands of militants he claims to lead did not engage in any significant militant activity.

The MMA government in the Frontier province, during its five- year tenure, did appease Fazalulla. The seeds of militant campaign that he is leading today against the security forces and the state of Pakistan were essentially sown during this time. However, Dir and Malakand were two regions were the religious extremists prevented women from casting their votes in the 2002 election, which was quite a major issue at the time.

MMA’s Appeasement

During MMA’s rule, Fazalullah and his associates were able to set up around 32 FM stations in the region, round the clock broadcasting jihadi messages, just as the FM station operated by Pir Rehman in the Khyber agency propagated jihad, even causing sectarian violence in parts of Khyber in the past few years. The Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (PEMRA) Ordinance was not extended to this region.

Even while crisis over Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa was going on in Islamabad, and the security operation against two religious outfits had not yet started, FM radios operated by Fazalullah continued broadcasting Taliban-style fatwas, such as making it mandatory for women in the region to wear burqas, ordering girls not to attend schools, and preventing women from going to work. Out of fear, the people of the region largely complied with the religious decrees issued by Fazalullah.

The situation turned violent in July 2007 when the security operation against Lal Masjid and Jamia Hafsa took place. The Ghazi brothers wrote letters to Fazalullah and other clerics loyal to TNSM for financial help as well as personnel support, which was generated by Fazalullah and his associates. The majority of militants as well as madrassa students at Jamia Faridia, who had gathered at Lal Mosque, with scores of them eventually killed in the security operation, had essentially come from the Malakand Division.

Seen in this backdrop, there is a direct linkage between the security operation against Lal Masjid and the campaign of militancy that has been waged by extremists led by Faalullah in the Malakand Division. Fazalullah and his spokesman Sirajuddin have categorically stated many times that they will avenge the death of those killed in the security operation against Lal Masjid.

Revenge of Lal Masjid

The spate of suicide and roadside bombings specifically targeting security forces since the mid of July clearly prove that the extremists led by Fazalullah are basically reacting to the security operation against Lal Masjid, which, as per government claims, resulted in the death of some 78 militants. Since the mid of July, a slightly higher number of security personnel, around 80, have become a victim of militancy in Malakand lone. The number of security personnel dying as a result of militancy by the extremist affiliates of Fazalullah in Waziristan and elsewhere in the country is aside, and it is even higher that those who laid their lives in Malakand.

Fazalullah has not only targeted security forces, but also individual politicians whom he perceives to be hostile to his regressive cause in the region. In the aftermath of the security operation against Lal Masjid, for instance, his militants attacked at least two former MPAs and ministers Shujaat Ali Khan and Lala Afzal. The former was accompanied by his four grandsons. All of them were injured, with a bodyguard dead. The house of Matta Nazim Jamal Nasir was looted and set on fire. He was also injured earlier while accompanying Lala Afzal, an ANP leader from Malakand. As things stand now, the extremists loyal to Fazalulla are on a rampage in Malakand.

In the strife-torn areas such as Matta, Kabal, Khwaza Khela, and Manga Lowar, they have taken control of the roads. So much so that the bodies of 12 security personnel killed in militant acts had been lying in open sky in the Manga Lowar area, and only after four days the security forces were able to recover them. The heads of the four of these security personnel were severed and paraded in the bazaar by the extremists. Such tales of inhumanity continue.

Future of Peace Bids

The All Parties Conference that concluded in Chakdara has created an eight-member committee to negotiate with extremist forces led by Fazalullah. They represent a cross-section of religious and political views.

The broader reasons for the growth of extremism in the country could range from a general pubic reaction to the present leadership’s Enlightened Moderation policies, or the general perception that counter-extremism and counter-terrorism policies being pursued by the government are essentially on the asking of the United States. Whatever the reasons, no government will allow its sovereignty to be violated by radical religious outfits such as the one led by Fazalullah, hell bent upon creating mini-states according to realize their narrow-minded bigoted ambitions.

For now, whatever peace bids are on the horizon to prevent further bloodbath in Swat do not appear to bear fruit as the warring side across the valley’s serene river have adopted diametrically opposed positions. On the basis of one’s recollection from the 1995 TNSM uprising, one can foresee that security forces may eventually score a military success against the forces of Fazlullah in Imam Dheri, which has already been attacked by gunship helicopters. How to solve a conflict rooted in religious extremism and militancy through political means is the biggest question, and, even of the security operation eventually succeeds, it may take years for the Valley of Death to once again take the place of Pakistan’s second most important tourist destination.

Access column at weeklypulse.org